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  • Writer's pictureDr. Caitlin Barnes

Transitioning a Course to an Online Format

Have you ever asked yourself why you teach the way you do in your traditional face-to-face courses?

I hear it all the time. Many higher education instructors were sort of thrown into teaching without any training or direction.

At best, it was “here’s a textbook and some notes from the previous teacher” and then left alone to complete the rest.

What happens next? Well, savvy instructors tend to fall back on what they know, which is how they were taught. This is typically a very traditional approach. The instructor lectures at the front of the class. While the students take notes. Progressive instructors use visual aids like power points or even videos in the class, but it’s still the classic lecture we all know and love.

Most instructors feel like they have a grasp on teaching face-to-face, but any ideas for online seem to fall apart before taking hold into something meaningful. So most often, teachers tend to fall back on what they know, and recreate their face-to-face class as an online version.

Where did your teaching strategies come from?

If you are anything like the hundreds of faculty I’ve spoken with about their teaching strategies, then you might have chuckled a bit at that question. HA! What strategies???

Unfortunately, the education part is often left neglected. This is especially true for our first-year faculty. But no worries, I have great news! If you are developing a new online course, we have an opportunity to rethink the way it’s taught.

Some activities already lend themselves well to online formats such as individual research papers. But some activities, like in-class discussions, make it much more difficult to figure out how to translate that online.

Maybe you have heard of a flipped classroom? Teaching online is very similar to teaching a flipped classroom, where students learn on their own and then come together to discuss and share ideas. It’s actually an effective way to learn, but teaching online with this approach can be a little overwhelming at first, especially if you’ve never experienced it before.

Before you start trying to discover ways to turn your face-to-face activities to an online format, let’s start at the very beginning… a very good place to start. ;)

Instead of focusing on the activities you do in face-to-face classes, try and pinpoint the objectives behind the activity.

Uh oh, I said the word objectives and I can actually feel your eyes glazing over.

Objectives are usually the last thing instructors write for the class and the first thing the student skip over when reading the syllabus. But if you are going to make a high-quality online course, objectives are at the heart of every teaching strategy you incorporate.

Let’s take a look at in-class discussions, as an example.

In-class discussions are something most college instructors feel can’t be replicated in an online course - especially those faculty who have never taught online before.

Look at the objectives for this activity and focus on some possible reasons why you have in-class discussions in a face-to-face class.

In-Class Discussion Objective A: Participation

When participation is the objective, it is likely because you don’t want your students sleeping in the back of the class. You also want to make sure students show up to your lectures. Participation is a great way to keep the students involved with the material as the course progresses.

Do you need to make sure your students stay awake in your online class? Do you need students to show up to a lecture? Maybe not. However, you do want to make sure they are interacting with the course on a regular basis. But do you have to recreate a discussion to meet this objective?

You could, but you can have students attend all sorts of online activities for participation points!

You can (1) count completion of assignments, weekly quizzes, or online chat discussions as participation.

You can (2) track student activity within a learning management system (LMS), such as Canvas, D2L or Blackboard. An LMS will track how many students watched your lecture video or how many pages they viewed. You can also view login dates and times.

(3) Holding weekly office hours (virtually) and awarding students participation points for attending is another great way to include participation.

In-Class Discussion Objective B: Connecting with students and building community

This is a common objective for in-class discussions. In a face-to-face class, you may use discussion in order to gain an understanding of the students’ knowledge, context and thought processes. You may also want to build a sense of trust and community, so that students feel comfortable sharing ideas and coming to you for advice.

How do you do this online? This one may be a bit tricky for you, because the online strategies involved are not necessarily intuitive. But I assure you, discussions are not the only way to meet this objective!

A great way to pursue this objective while teaching online is to have (4) icebreaker activities in the first week. You can (5) post polls or surveys in the course throughout the semester to gauge students’ involvement and interest in material. Let your students know that you want to get to know them and that you have a personal interest in their learning

Another strategy is to (6) include an online forum where students can share their thoughts and ideas about the content. You can even require participation, and now you’ve covered both community and participation in one activity! Two birds, one stone!

As before, requiring virtual office hour attendance is one strategy to replace in-person discussions, but you could also (7) reach out to the students weekly. Email them with assistance, and resources to help foster trust.

If your LMS has a message or email feature turned on, you could write these emails in advance, and schedule them to go out at critical times during the term. Some faculty even sign up for a free account with an email service such as MailChimp, HubSpot or Constant Contact so they can write all of their emails in advance, schedule them, and quickly respond to student questions and responses throughout the term.

In-Class Discussion Objective C: Hear perspectives other than your own

One of the most powerful ways for students to learn is to relate the content to their lives, and hearing the perspectives of others is a direct line for that.

This is one of my favorite objectives for an in-class discussion. For anyone who has led one in their own class, you know the power of seeing a student’s “aha” moment first-hand. I won’t tell you that there is a way to replicate these special moments in an in-person class, because there’s not. But we aren’t trying to replicate the activity, we are going for the objective.

In case you were wondering, “aha” moments still happen online, you just may not have a front row seat to witness them.

One of my favorite ways to capture a student’s “aha” moment in an online course is to ask them to (8) reflect on their learning. Ask simple questions such as “what did you take away from this” or “how does this connect to your daily life” to ensure students are seeing the significance of what you are teaching them.

If you use a discussion board app like Flipgrid for reflections, students can easily see or hear other students talking through what they took away from the material, essentially helping them meet this objective.

A way to prompt students into examining alternative perspectives is to (9) provide case studies, or create scenarios for students to discuss online. Whether synchronous or asynchronous, discussions tend to ignite when you show them a real-world application to the content.

Another great online strategy is to (10) group students and have them debate or pick a stance and defend their position during a recorded video presentation.

Now you know what it looks like to focus on objectives instead of the activity. I just listed 10 ways you can replicate an in-class discussion into your online class. It is entirely dependent on your objective on which activity you select for your course.


In a face-to-face class, everything happens in the classroom. In an online class, those things still happen, they just happen in different places throughout the virtual space, like discussion boards, virtual conferences or even while students view other students’ video reflections.

We need to look at why we do what we do in a face-to-face classroom - what is the objective? Are we doing it just because that is how we were taught? Trying to replicate these same activities into synchronous online learning is often more work and more frustration for everyone involved.

Once we focus on the objective of the activity, we can create an online experience around that objective instead of trying to simply recreate the activity.

So what is an objective? A well written objective has two parts: an outcome and an assessment.

You write out what the student will do or gain by taking the course, and then describe how the student will show you they can do it.

My go-to resource for creating objectives is Bloom’s Taxonomy and the verb chart. I’ve posted a list of these verbs on this blog and they are truly life-savers when it comes to building your objectives.

Not only that, but they are organized into levels of understanding, which is essentially what Blooms Taxonomy is, and these levels show you the depth of learning you are going into with each objective.

For example, an objective asking for a broad or general understanding of a topic will ask students to recall information or memorize. But with a deeper knowledge of the material your students could possibly create something from scratch or design large projects built on the foundation of learning you’ve provided!

Bloom’s Taxonomy helps us avoid phrases like “students will know” or “students will understand” because knowing and understanding are not easily measured.

I can, however, test someone on whether they can list, or describe, or create based on their knowledge.

Keep in mind that using objectives is useful no matter what modality you are teaching in.

Have you ever been asked to teach a topic in a single course that could easily be an entire major? I have! It is up to the instructor to disseminate what students have to know about a topic to succeed in other classes, and what skills or knowledge we want them to walk away with when the course is over.

Objectives are the key to guiding this process. Focus on what the students need to be able to do or what they need to know, and then think of how you will measure whether they have met that objective or not.

And so, objectives are not just for the front page of your syllabus for both you and the students to skip over as you skim information. You can and should use objectives to guide everything you do in the course. Use objectives and Bloom’s Taxonomy to build your assignments and ensure you are asking appropriate levels of learning for each type of assessment you assign.

I create study guides for my students as they watch lecture videos so they know exactly what I want them to pull from the video, and those are loaded with objectives. It really clarifies my expectations and gives the students a clear direction on where they need to go.

Throughout this blog, I discussed many strategies specific to teaching an online course. But I don’t want you to implement anything that doesn’t directly tie into your course objectives. You can have the coolest, most popular tech tool that exists, but if it does not directly help students meet the objectives of your course, it won’t go over well.

There are a lot of options, and you get to determine which option works best for you and your students.

To summarize, here are 5 takeaways to consider when transitioning to an online layout:

  • Focus on the objectives, not the activity itself when determining the best activities for your students.

  • You can achieve the same outcomes in an online course as you do in a face-to-face course, you just have to strategically organize those opportunities in different places in the online course.

  • Objectives should have a skill or learning outcome as well as a clear description of how students will be assessed.

  • When creating objectives, use Bloom’s Taxonomy to help guide the level of the activity, as well as establishing your assessment strategy.

  • And objectives should guide not only the goals of the course, but also all activities you ask your students to complete in order to help make your course as cohesive and efficient as possible.

This is why so many faculty claim that teaching online has made their in-person teaching better. Creating an online course forces us to rethink why we teach the way we do, and create activities with purpose. This powerful teaching practice, once discovered, will permeate through the courses you teach and impact your teaching on a very fundamental level.

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